As the accepted link between China and the territories of Hong Kong and Macau, Guangzhou has naturally developed into something of a business heartland. Downtown, you’ll find a skyline dominated by skyscrapers and a manic pace of life comparable to the business-focused corners of New York or London.
It’s not the most attractive of cities, and for many Guangzhou is simply a necessary evil on the way to the casinos and boutique shopping further south, though if you’re stuck here for a night or two, there are a few spots well worth seeing. Start out with the Guangxiao Temple, which is a landmark of Zen Buddhism, marking the spot at which the sixth patriarch trained. While these days the sight has become a heartland for relentless con artists (best avoid looking at or agreeing to anything outside – especially from monks, who surprisingly are the worst of the bunch), inside you’ll find an ornate 19th century structure surrounded by perfectly ordered garden reminiscent of the more famous Japanese temples.
You might even be better off stepping away from the obvious sights, with the city’s backstreets as intriguing as anywhere in China. Many of the alleyways are pedestrian only, and often dedicated to a particular item, such as tea, flowers or lanterns, which makes for some great photographs. If you have the stomach for it, head for Qingping Market, a spot that sits at the heart of the Chinese ‘eat anything’ ethos, and has long been known for its buoyant trade in wild animals, certainly not a spot for the fainthearted, with everything from fried insects to deer penis on open display.
If you time it right, there are some great festivals to take in around Guangzhou, too. Chinese year is impressive (though arguably better celebrated elsewhere in China), while May brings the Dragon Boat Festival, when the Pearl River comes to life. The rest of the year, a high-end daily dinner cruise offers an alternative way to see the city sights.
It might be far from the top of your must see list for China, but Guangzhou is a key stop off on the way south, and it does have its charms.